VFX: Disney's 'Maleficent'
Issue: June 1, 2014

VFX: Disney's 'Maleficent'

LOS ANGELES — In Disney’s animated classic Sleeping Beauty (1959), Princess Aurora is cursed to fall into a death-like sleep on her 16th birthday. Maleficent, the fairy and mistress of all evil, applied the spell in anger after not being invited to the royal christening. 

Forty-five years later, Disney has released a live-action feature that gives movie audiences another perspective on the fairy tale. Angelina Jolie plays the lead role, with special effects make-up enhancing her already angular facial features. Visual effects also play a large role in helping to tell the story, which spans the evil mistress’s lifetime. Robert Stromberg, who received Academy Awards for Production Design for his work on Alice in Wonderland and Avatar, directed the VFX-heavy feature, which also stars Elle Fanning as the young Princess. 

Digital Domain and MPC handled the bulk of the visual effects for the feature, working with the film’s VFX supervisor, Carey Villegas. Here, Digital Domain’s VFX supervisor Kelly Port details some of the studio’s work on 540 shots, which range from digital environments and creating the fairies responsible for protecting Princess Aurora, to the wings of Maleficent herself.

POST: What were Digital Domain’s VFX contributions for Maleficent?
KELLY PORT: “Digital Domain was responsible primarily for three main groups. One was Maleficent herself — any digi doubles — and her wings. She has three digi doubles. There is a young version of Maleficent, a teen version, and the adult version. And all had different costumes. The adult version had about four different costume changes.”

POST: Why was there a need to have digital doubles?
PORT: “Primarily, it was for big action shots, where it was wider or she was flying around. Angelina did a lot of her own stunts, with rigs and wires. For a lot of those close ups, we used a lot of that material, and even used it for a lot of the wide shots as well. In certain cases, the physics — a certain dive or move, her body movement — weren’t looking correct for what we wanted to do, or a decision was made to change what was actually shot to be more appropriate for the environment we had built, because the environment hadn’t necessarily been completed when we were shooting the plates.”

POST: Can you talk about the environments?
PORT: “We shared a lot of work with MPC. They did a lot of environments as well. Environments where she was flying around, we did a lot of those — full CG environments with rocks and trees, and water and waterfalls, and clouds and skies.”

POST: Maleficent is a 3D film, but it wasn’t shot in 3D?
PORT: “A lot of 3D environments, we did in native stereo. It’s a 3D film, [but] it was not shot native stereo. It was shot single eye and then dimensionalized [by Prime Focus, Gener8 and Legend 3D]. But for the all-digital scenes, for example, with her flying around — which is a good minute or two — and select shots, we made them native stereo because we could. And it was a little bit faster that way, and would look better. All we needed to do was get a stereo camera and render a second eye.”

POST: What other visual effects were Digital Domain responsible for?
PORT: “I hate to say ‘the group I’m most proud of,’ because I am proud of it all, but the most technically-challenging and rewarding for us were the three pixie hero characters we worked on. You see them in the first act of the film. They are small pixies, about one-third the size of a human. These are the ones that were tasked by the King to take care of Aurora until she reaches her 16th birthday. And when they are tasked to do that, they transform into their live-action, full-grown selves. There are three of them played by three amazing actresses: Imelda Staunton, who plays the Knotgrass; Lesley Manville, who plays the character Flittle; and Juno Temple plays Thistletwit. In the second act of the film they are live action, but in the first and third, they are pixie versions of themselves, so right off the bat, it was critical that there were similarities that could call back to the live-action versions of themselves. We wanted to ‘pixify’ or [add] some slight stylization, but maintain a very photorealistic quality.

“The characters themselves are extraordinarily complex in terms of their hairstyles — long, curly hair on Thistletwit. Their costumes are made of multiple layers of leaves and flower petals…seeds from dandelions and grasses, that all have to interact with the different layers and their body. There is small, delicate facial hair and body hair. We spent an enormous amount of time working on getting very accurate eyes, looking at muscle and connective tissue.”

POST: How did you manage it?
PORT: “What we did was start with the actress’ head, and took incredibly high-resolution scans, down to the pore level of detail, and worked on the skin shaders and the hair and eyes. We were able to create a digital version of the actor, where you could put it side by side and couldn’t tell the difference. At that point, we knew we hit the realism target, and then could go into making the pixie version of that. We created three completely photorealistic versions of the actors, which are never seen in the film, but it was critical for us to use it as a milestone and target because if right off the bat you go into a stylized version of an actor, you can’t ever be 100 percent sure that you hit that realism target.”

POST: You must have needed access to the talent early on?
PORT: “We had them early on, [but] not all at once, because of scheduling. We were able to get Lesley Manville, first. She was the initial development, and then we worked on the other two when we were able to get their scans. We worked with the ICT Group here in Los Angeles, using their scanning equipment. We’ve worked with them quite a bit in the past and have a good working relationship.”

POST: How was the work split up between Digital Domain’s Los Angeles and Vancouver facilities?
PORT: “We had a group, mostly in Vancouver, that was working on Maleficent and the wings. Generally speaking, the pixies were being done here in Los Angeles. The production team was in Vancouver quite a bit. There was a little bit of cross pollination for sure, but generally, that’s how it was divided up.”

POST: How much manpower did you have to allocate to this film?
PORT: “It varied. We had close to 500 people actually working on the show, not at [the same] moment, but who actually touched the show. I’d say we had close to 300. That would be a good, solid team size.”

POST: When did you get involved?
PORT: “I started when the shoot started. In fact, the shoot had been going on for a couple of weeks. I started in late August of 2012, so we’ve been involved for close to two years — over two years if you include the initial prep and bidding.”

POST: Were the VFX scenes shot against a blue screen?
PORT: “[There were] a lot of blue screens on-set for set replacement, or things that need to be done with live-action characters, or partial sets. That was all shot at Pinewood in the UK. The backgrounds and plates all happened on-set. Any additional digital work [was] done at various studios in LA, Vancouver and London.”

POST: What were they shooting with?
PORT: “They used the Arri Alexa. Most of the cameras were modified at the time…We had a few element shoots that happened probably six months ago in the UK. They went back and shot some flowers, grass and different trees. As you progress further into the shots and have a good idea of where you are going, you know you are missing something. It would be great to have a little grass or foreground flowers, and you go back and shoot generic elements that can be used for that.”

POST: How many shots was Digital Domain responsible for?
PORT: “We had a dramatic change, but I think it was close to 600. MPC may have had more. They had a lot of character shots in the fairly-land environment. The production also had a small group of artists working on a few hundred shots as well.”

POST: You must have an established toolset for a film workflow?
PORT: “Primarily, the base tools are Maya for modeling, animation and rigging. A lot of that is used as the base application, but we have a lot of proprietary tools for making those specialty rigs and models. Houdini, typically, we used for effects like water and clouds, and any kind of light effects or particle simulations — things like that. And for compositing and putting it all together, we use Nuke.”

POST: Were the pixies the biggest challenge on this film?
PORT: “That was definitely one of the harder parts — finding the true essence of the character but still maintaining that stylized version. The eyes were slightly bigger. The nose was slightly smaller. The whole body was smaller. Finding these characteristics of each individual actor and making sure it translated into the pixie version without losing the essence, discovering that essence was critical. We wanted to smooth out or reduce wrinkles, or adjust the eyes, but if you went too far, it would not look like them anymore. You had to be really careful with that.”